Shipping lines connect the Port of Halifax to more than 150 countries, so it’s fitting the Halifax Port Authority champions and embraces diversity. “Our business is global and we have to reflect that market. Simple as that,” says Karen Oldfield, the port authority’s president and CEO.

The topic of diversity is has long been on Oldfield’s mind. Years ago, she would return from business trips and notice the port and Halifax just didn’t have the same diversity she saw abroad, which left a strong impression on her. “While on the one hand externally we’re doing business globally and interacting with people from different countries and cultures, we didn’t have the same flexibility internally or even in our city to speak to these businesspeople in their home language or relate to them on their terms,” she says.

She decided the port needed more diversity in its organization so it could conduct business with people from around the globe “on their level, using their language and their cultural norms.” Traditionally, the approach was to hire interpreters to help with communications on trips, which would sometimes result in details being lost in translation.


The port’s diversity efforts began by tapping into the internal expertise of port staffers, as well as employing the services of people in Halifax who could speak languages other than English. As well, having a unique cultural background
became a major benefit for prospective employees of the port.

Oldfield says the first person hired under this new diversity mandate was Sam Zhang, a Port of Halifax staffer who began working with the organization in 2009. Originally from Shanghai, China, Zhang studied business administration at Acadia University and then received an MBA from Saint Mary’s University. He was working as a business analyst in the accounting department when he joined the port.

Oldfield felt he could contribute more to the organization and asked if he’d be interested in working to increase Asian trade. Zhang said he soon found himself working full-time in a business development role.

Having a diverse staff pays off when working with the port’s partners, he says. “I think people are comfortable doing business with the people they know,” he says of his understanding of Asian culture, the language and business customs.

Zhang considers Oldfield to be one of his mentors. “She has helped me to improve professionally and personally,” he says. Zhang says she provides support, advice, and mentorship to help people achieve their goals. When he first started trying to increase business with Asian partners, Oldfield helped open doors for him by introducing him to her local and international connections to begin building relationships.

Appreciation for Oldfield extends beyond the port too. Last year, she was honoured with a Women of Excellence Award from the Canadian Progress Club. The award honours women who are at the top of their fields and play a key role in their communities.

Oldfield was honoured in the management and professions category alongside Lena Diab, the provincial immigration minister. Oldfield says receiving an award like this is only possible when you are surrounded by a solid team of people. “Their efforts are recognized through you,” she says.

For an organization like the port authority, which is international by nature, embracing diversity is a no brainer. Even if a business or organization’s scope is not international, they should be doing the same, says Oldfield.

Research from the Conference Board of Canada shows that diversity is a positive for society. An October 2010 report said increased immigration results in higher imports and exports, as well as greater foreign direct investment in the Canadian

That same report also looked at some of the benefits for employers. “Diverse workgroups outperform non-diverse groups, as long as they are effectively managed,” they have a more positive working environment, and are “better positioned to understand and anticipate the needs of an increasingly diverse marketplace,” it says.

In addition to recruiting diverse talent, the Halifax Port Authority instituted a new program to help keep international students in Nova Scotia. Unveiled in February 2015, the program is a partnership with Saint Mary’s University that offers the school’s international students paid internships at the port. For three years, two students will work four or eight month internships
at the port each year.

The program’s goal is to allow international students to get valuable work experience so they can stay in Nova Scotia to start their lives and careers. Canadian-born students have a hard enough time finding work after graduation, but “it’s doubly hard” foreign students, says Oldfield.

When Saint Mary’s announced the program, then president Dr. Colin Dodds spoke about what it would mean. “We hear far too often from international students that they love Nova Scotia and want to stay in this beautiful province, but they don’t have the practical work experience that will allow them to do so. This program is designed to address that issue,” he said in a
news release.

Last October, the Halifax International Airport Authority announced a similar program in partnership with Dalhousie University. For three years, one or two students will be hired for an eight-month paid work term each year. This news delights Oldfield, as she hopes more businesses and organizations institute similar programs.

[tie_full_img]MyHalifaxExperience_leadingbyexample[/tie_full_img] [su_pullquote]“When the example is being set, it makes it easier for other businesses to see what’s happening and be able to ask questions, ‘Why are you doing that? What’s in it for you? How’s that helping your business? What’s that doing for your bottom line?’” says Oldfield.[/su_pullquote]

But it’s not just the business community that needs to embrace diversity. Each and every citizen has a role. Oldfield has noticed a “huge, dramatic shift” in Nova Scotia over the last five years as newcomers are more willingly embraced, but much more work needs to be done. “We are welcoming, but there’s a big difference between being welcoming and inviting people home for Sunday dinner. This is where we need to go,” she says.

In addition to Nova Scotians being more welcoming, the province’s immigrant retention rates are up significantly. Statistics show Nova Scotia’s retention rate was 37 per cent in 2001. For immigrants who arrived in Nova Scotia between 2007 and 2011, the retention rate was 71 per cent.

Nova Scotia’s aging population means that in the future immigrants and the many international students who leave the province after graduation will play a major role in the province’s workforce. “We have to take these talented people and get them to places where they are able to leverage that experience for themselves and the companies they are working for,” says Oldfield.

Richard Woodbury

Richard Woodbury

Richard writes for both local and national publications and his work has been published by Reuters, Metro and Enterprise Magazine.